'He will rest in peace now ... but I'll never forget his face'
What one woman's husband went through in the Esidimeni scandal will always haunt her, but she is glad the truth has finally come out
Marie Colitz, whose husband Freddie died at the Masego Home in Krugersdorp in an emaciated state, thought the “story” of her husband’s death at an NGO would be hers to bear alone.
“It was my story,” she says of her personal suffering. But now “the truth is out”, she says thanks to the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings.
“I thought it was only my story ... but now it’s so big, I mean it’s 144 people’s story.”
After former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke’s detailed judgment on Monday, she wore a small smile.
“I am feeling all the dirt is coming out. If families didn’t fight, it would never come out.”
On a Monday in August 2016, after Marie and her sons had visited Freddie at the home in Krugersdorp the previous day, her son, Freddie jnr, phoned to found out how he was.
He had been thin and didn’t want to eat.
“Oh, didn’t you know he had died?” staff at the home asked Colitz’s son a day after his death.They are among 67 families awarded R1.2-million, a million of which was for constitutional damages and R200,000 for emotional damages and funeral costs.
But Colitz said she won’t be going on an spending spree.
“I am poor. I was born poor. I will always be poor.”
Colitz, who lives in Meyerton, south of Johannesburg, where she raised her two sons, walks everywhere, doesn’t own a car and doesn’t know how to drive.
She said she was grateful that the truth about how health officials abused their power had come out.
“The truth is out. Thank you, God. We made it.”
She said the families had fought for justice. Had they not, what happened would not have come to light.In his ruling, Moseneke said officials thought they could get away with the Life Esidimeni move that ultimately cost 144 lives, with 44 patients still missing.
He said Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu went ahead with the move despite repeated warnings by doctors and families and civil society not to do so.
“She acted with impunity, thinking she would get away with it because users and her families were vulnerable.”
Following Moseneke’s ruling that detailed the pain of victims and the “abuse of power” by officials, Colitz said of her husband: “I think he will rest in peace now. I will get on with my life.”Speaking of the money that has to be paid by the Gauteng provincial department to the families by June 16, she said: “I will still live a normal life, [but] maybe a better life.
“But I will never forget his face. It is like video playing over and over again. I can see him coming out of the NGO with heels with marks like they dragged him. They refused to take him to hospital. They refused to give me his ID.”
The award to families is based on constitutional damages, described by health ombudsman Malegapuru Makgoba, who first investigated the scandal, as “very unusual”.
It allows for financial damages, which ordinary law does not make provision for. These are to be paid to victims when the state abuses its power and breaches people’s constitutional rights.
Moseneke found that many violations of constitutional rights were made by the state: “Every element of the Gauteng Marathon Project trampled on human dignity.”
He found that the right to dignity, and to food and water and healthcare, were violated by state officials.
The judgment was scathing of the way in which three senior officials handled the project, finding they did not tell the truth and that none of the reasons given for it were “cogent”. Their irrational conduct was unconstitutional.
Moseneke did not mince his words about Mahlangu and her officials, Dr Barney Selebano and Dr Makgabo Manamela.
The “death and torture” of Life Esidimeni patients stemmed from the “abuse of public power”.
By September 2016, after the moves concluded in June, Mahlangu lied about how many people had died, in an answer to a question by the DA’s Jack Bloom in the Gauteng legislature.When she addressed the provincial legislature on the number of dead, she spoke of 36 deaths, when there had been at least 77.
“She was more concerned about a political game than the truth of the dying,” said Moseneke.
Sadly, the hearings ended with no one knowing why it happened.
Moseneke rejecting the reasons the officials had given: to save money and move patients into the community, and allegedly because the auditor-general was unhappy with a lengthy contract with Life Esidimeni.
These had no basis, Moseneke found.
He pointed a finger at Mahlangu: as ultimate leader and member of the executive council, she had failed to explain why so many lives were placed at risk for no good reason.
Mahlangu, he found, “acted with ulterior motive that remains concealed”, even after the hearing process.
“All we can hope for is one day the true reason for the ending of [Life Esidimeni contract will see] the light of day.”